Murder in the Air
Cast & Crew
Eddie Foy Jr.
As a wave of sabotage threatens the security of the country, Saxby, the head of the U.S. Secret Service, assigns agent Brass Bancroft to impersonate the deceased spy Steve Swenko. Gabby Watters, Brass's assistant, finds a letter in the dead spy's shoe, addressed to Joe Garvey, the leader of a patriotic society that is being investigated by the Rice Committee on Unamerican Activities. Consequently, Brass, posing as Swenko, sets out to contact Garvey. Brass's task is complicated when Hilda Riker, Swenko's wife, appears at his hotel looking for her husband. Brass tells Hilda that Steve is dead and he is carrying out his mission, but Hilda recognizes him as a federal agent and alerts Otto Brennerman, one of Garvey's operatives, to set a trap for Brass at her apartment. Luckily, Gabby, posing as a taxi driver, follows Brass to the apartment and comes to his rescue, arresting Hilda and Otto before they can notify Garvey about the deception. An unwitting Garvey then assigns Brass to board a dirigible on which an inertia projector, a defense weapon capable of paralyzing electical currents at their source, has been installed. Once aboard Brass is to contact Rumford, a spy posing as secretary to Dr. Finchley, a member of the League of Nations. Rumford orders Brass to destroy the dirigible while he steals the plans for the inertia projector, but before Brass can act, Otto escapes and warns Garvey and Rumford that Brass is really a government agent. Soon afterward, the dirigible crashes during a storm, and Rumford steals the plans and leaves the unconscious Brass to perish in the crash. After Brass is rescued and taken to a Navy hospital, Rumford discovers that he is still alive and warns Garvey, who prepares to fly Rumford and the stolen plans across the border. Before they can escape, Brass regains consciousness and tells Saxby about Rumford. Saxby then alerts the airports to watch for Garvey's plane, and in a spectacular air chase, Garvey's plane is shot down by the inertia projector, sending both spies to their death in a burst of flames.
Eddie Foy Jr.
Carlyle Moore Jr.
John "skins" Miller
Murder in the Air (1940)
Reagan's first three Brass Bancroft movies were Secret Service of the Air (1939), in which our heroic T-Man takes on a ring of criminals who are smuggling illegal aliens into the United States by airplane. The next two entries in the series, Code of the Secret Service and Smashing the Money Ring (both 1939), dealt with counterfeiting rings. The series was produced by the head of the Warner Bros. 'B' unit, Bryan Foy, who was the son of famed vaudevillian Eddie Foy. It was no accident then that the sidekick role in the Secret Service series, Bancroft's pal Gabby, was played by the producer's brother: Eddie Foy, Jr.
Screenwriter Raymond Schrock turned in the script for Murder in the Air on September 1, 1939, and during the next few weeks, during which he was making revisions, World War II broke out in earnest in Europe. As a result the film was both timely in subject matter and a furthering of a pet cause of Warners warning audiences about what they perceived as possible subversive activities from foreign agents. The working titles for the film, in fact, included The Enemy Within and Uncle Sam Awakens.
The "Rice Committee" as seen in the film was based on the real-life Dies Session, a Congressional committee that looked into sabotage and the international spy game (and later grew into the House Un-American Activities Committee). The commission questions Joe Garvey (James Stephenson), a shady character who heads up a supposed patriotic society dedicated "to preserve American neutrality at any cost." The committee, though, is worried that he is mixed up in sabotage and other Fifth Column activities, and is linked to a known saboteur named Steve Swenko. The body of Swenko turns up in a train wreck; he is disguised as a hobo and is carrying a large amount of cash and a letter of introduction to Garvey written in invisible ink. The letter is discovered in a hollowed-out shoe heel discovered by Treasury agent Brass Bancroft (Ronald Reagan) and his partner Gabby Watters (Eddie Foy, Jr.). ("Slap me down and call me names what a spot for a married man to keep his money overnight," says Gabby when he finds the compartment). Brass is assigned to pose as Swenko and meet up with Garvey and infiltrate his spy ring. Set up in a seedy hotel, Agent Brass has a close call when Swenko's wife Hilda (Lya Lys) arrives to meet up with her husband. When Garvey is convinced that Brass is actually the ace saboteur Swenko, he assigns him the task of boarding a Navy dirigible which is carrying a new secret weapon The Inertia Projector a defensive ray gun that can render motorized vehicles dead with a paralyzing current. ("Nervous Objector?" asks Gabby innocently). Brass is told to make contact with Rumford (Victor Zimmerman), a spy who is posing as the assistant to Dr. Finchley (Robert Warwick), who developed the ray. Brass finds out from Rumford that he is to destroy the blimp while Rumford steals the plans for the secret weapon.
In his book Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics, Stephen Vaughn writes of the studio's concern about spying in America, saying that "few individuals were more alarmed about fifth columnists than Harry Warner. He had become deeply troubled, even obsessed, by reports of subversion in the United States. In his impassioned speech before the American legion in September 1938, he called on legionnaires to fight 'unwelcome, un-American forces...Drive them from their secret meeting places, destroy their insidious propaganda machines, drive out their...leagues, their clans and Black legions, the Silver Shirts, the Black Shirts and the Dirty Shirts.' So intense was his concern that it affected his health, and [brother and studio production head] Jack instructed employees to stop talking with Harry about such matters."
The year before Murder in the Air was released, Warner Bros. had released the high profile "A" picture Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), starring Edward G. Robinson. It had run into censorship trouble with the Hays Office. Since the United States was not yet at war, and there was still distribution of American films in some European countries, Joseph Breen and his staff expressed concern over content in such films that smacked of overt propaganda. As Vaughn noted, "In one draft of Murder in the Air, the film was to open with 'a group of six rough looking men, obviously German and Russian types,' tearing up railroad track in order to wreck an oncoming train. In the final script, however, the scene called for the men to be only of 'mixed nationalities.'" The movie was also originally going to open with a montage of the Axis military buildup in Europe and a map showing their increasing domination, with a voiceover saying that "once again the world was rushing headlong into a maelstrom of death and destruction, which would wipe civilization from the face of the earth." The opening was to continue with a contrasting view of serene life in the United States as the narration continued: "While in the United States, a peace loving nation was going about its daily pursuits, feeling secure in its traditional policy of isolation from foreign quarrels and entanglements... there was destined to occur a number of unrelated and unexplainable incidents which were to arouse suspicions of SABOTAGE and the presence in this country of INTERNATIONAL TERRORISTS." Over a montage of stock footage explosions, the Narrator was to tell us that "paid agents of destruction were seeking to paralyze industry, obstruct commerce and destroy natural resources... The failure of tested machinery to properly function gave rise to the belief that alien saboteurs were also infesting our airline and ammunition factories, even our Navy Yards, seeking to cripple our program for National Defense." The final film dispensed with the vast majority of this alarmist narrative, no doubt due to objections from the Breen Office. Ultimately, the movie opens with a brisk montage of destruction and a few newspaper headlines flashing onscreen.
The Inertia Projector that turns up rather casually in Murder in the Air was a not-too-distant relative of the deadly ray guns that could be found in many Saturday morning serials of the day, as well as in science fiction features such as The Invisible Ray (1936), starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Outlandish though it may seem to modern audiences, moviegoers in the late 1930s and early 1940s were no doubt aware that actual experiments with electromagnetic beams used for defense purposes had been conducted in real life. Reports suggested that in Italy, Guglielmo Marconi himself tried to develop a ray that could stop an automobile or bring down an airplane, although nothing came of the tests. Meanwhile, British scientists developed great refinements to existing radar systems during the time they investigated using electronic pulses against German air raids.
Notices for Murder in the Air were mixed. The reviewer in the New York Times wrote "Mr. Reagan, who had seen service previously with the Warners' FBI force, handles his role of counter-espionage agent with the customary daring... The screenplay by Raymond Schrock is compact, if not 'original,' and the direction of Lewis Seiler is swiftly paced. All of which tends to make Murder in the Air acceptable program fare." "Wear" in Variety was not very charitable toward the film, writing that "this is intended to be a spy thriller, but it gets badly tangled up in its own super-melodramatics at the finish for a silly and unsatisfactory ending." The reviewer had particular problems with the action-oriented science fiction elements of the script, saying "when the author is building suspense, he is okay. It is when he permits the story to get out of hand, as with the wreck of a navy blimp as well as the operation of an 'inertia projector' that the yarn skids."
Following completion of the "Secret Service" series, contract player Ronald Reagan went on to better roles in bigger budget "A" pictures at Warner Bros. His very next assignment, in fact, would provide one of the most memorable roles of his career: that of George "the Gipper" Gipp in Knute Rockne All American (1940).
Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: Lewis Seiler
Screenplay: Raymond L. Schrock
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: William Lava (uncredited)
Film Editing: Frank Magee
Cast: Ronald Reagan (Brass Bancroft, aka Steve Swenko and Steve Coe), John Litel (Mr. William Saxby), Lya Lys (Hilda Riker, aka Mrs. Steve Swenko), James Stephenson (Joe Garvey, Foreign Agent 321), Eddie Foy, Jr. (Gabby Watters), Robert Warwick (Doctor B.C. Finchley), Victor Zimmerman (R.G. Rumford), William Gould (Admiral Wm. A. Winfield)
by John M. Miller
Murder in the Air (1940)
Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004 - TCM Remembers Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan, the actor turned elected official whose fascinating career saw him develop as a contract player for Warner Brothers studios, to a politician who fulfilled his ambitions by becoming the 40th President of the United States, died at his home in Los Angeles on June 5 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 93.
He was born Ronald Wilson Reagan on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois to John and Nelle Reagan. When Reagan was nine, his family settled down in the small community of Dixon, about 100 miles west of Chicago. After high school, Reagan enrolled in Eureka College, a small Christian school near Peoria. He graduated in 1932 with a degree in Economics, and pursued a career in broadcasting. His first gig was as a part-time announcer at WOC in Davenport, Iowa. Within a year, WOC had merged with its big-sister station, WHO in Des Moines, and Reagan was hired as a sports announcer.
In the spring of 1937, Reagan drove to Southern California to catch the Chicago Cubs in spring training on Santa Catalina Island. While he was in California, he wrangled a screen test and signed a contract for $200 a week with Warner Brothers. His film debut was rather inauspicious; he portrayed a radio announcer in an innocuous comedy Love is on the Air (1937). He made a few more "B" programmers like Hollywood Hotel (also 1937), and Girls on Probation (1938), before getting his first prominent role opposite Bette Davis in the popular tearjerker, Dark Victory (1939).
Although he seldom got credit for being a good actor, there was no denying that Reagan held his own given the right material: Knute Rockne, All American as the doomed Notre Dame football hero George "The Gipper" Gipp, where he delivered the film's immortal line "Win one for the Gipper!"; Santa Fe Trail in which he ably supports Errol Flynn in one of the boxoffice hits of its era (both 1940); Kings Row (1941), featuring one of his finest performances as a small-town playboy whose legs are amputated by a careless surgeon; and Desperate Journey (1942) where he again supported Flynn in an exciting action picture.
Due to his poor eyesight, Reagan didn't see any action in World War II, so the studio heads assigned him to star in a series of patriotic films produced by the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Forces in Culver City. Between 1942-45, Reagan starred in over 400 of these films. After the war, Reagan still found some good roles: The Voice of the Turtle (1947) proved he had a deft hand at light comedy opposite Eleanor Parker; The Hasty Heart (1949) offered another underrated performance as he ably portrayed the Yank in John Patrick's much heralded wartime play; and Storm Warning (1950) was a slick melodrama that cast Reagan as a crusading District Attorney determined to bring the KKK in a small southern town, with the help of Doris Day and Ginger Rogers!
It was around this time that Reagan became involved in politics. In 1947, he began a five-year term as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and testified in October of that year before the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He identified suspected Communists Larry Parks, Howard Da Silva and Alexander Knox, all of whom were subsequently called to testify, and subsequently blacklisted. Later records showed Reagan was so concerned about the Communist influence in Hollywood, that he became an FBI informer.
As Reagan became steeped in his political career, his parts throughout the '50s became inferior: the notorious Bedtime for Bonzo (1951); the coy "sex" comedy She's Working Her Way Through College (1952) that cast him as a college professor who romances a stripper! (Virginia Mayo); Cattle Queen of Montana (1955), a sluggish Western that even the redoubtable Barbara Stanwyck couldn't save; and finally Hellcats of the Navy (1957), a stodgy war picture that would be his only film that co-starred his wife Nancy (Davis).
Television offered some salvation. For eight years, (1954-62), Reagan served as the host of General Electric Theater, a televised series of dramas. He also found a niche as GE's goodwill ambassador to employees and to civic and business groups around the country, furthering his taste and honing his craft as a public official. By the mid '60s, Reagan would move into politics entirely, save for one last film, the thrilling The Killers (1964), Reagan's only known villainous role, as a murderous gangster. That same year, he actively campaigned for Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, although Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson.
Reagan whose profile was riding high, had cemented his future as a successful politician. In 1966, he ran against incumbent Governor Pat Brown for the state of California and won, serving successfully for two terms until 1974.
Reagan began an all-out, two-year drive to wrest the 1976 nomination from incumbent Gerald R. Ford, an appointed vice president who became president on the resignation of Nixon. Reagan fell short by a handful of delegates to the Republican national convention. But Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, and Reagan became the front-runner to challenge Carter in 1980. After defeating Carter, Reagan held two terms as President of the United States (1981-89). After his second term was over, he retired quietly in California. In 1994, it was revealed to the media that Reagan was suffering from Alzheimer's disease; he had been kept out of the public eye since then.
He was married briefly to actress Jane Wyman (1940-48), and had two children; a daughter Maureen and an adopted son, Michael. In 1952, he married a budding film starlet, Nancy Davis, who bore him two more children; a daughter, Patty; and a son, Ronald Jr. Ronald Reagan is survived by Nancy, Michael, Patty and Ron Jr. His daughter Maureen died of Melanoma in 2001 at the age of 60.
by Michael T. Toole
Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004 - TCM Remembers Ronald Reagan
The working title of this picture was The Enemy Within. According to the Variety review, the Rice Commission depicted in the film was patterned after the Dies Sessions, a Congressional committee which probed international spying and sabotage. This was the fourth and final "Secret Service" film in the Warner Bros. series. For additional information on the series, consult the Series Index and for Secret Service of the Air.